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North Korea still operating key uranium plant: US think tank

North Korean flag (AFP-Yonhap)
North Korean flag (AFP-Yonhap)

North Korea has continued operation and production at its key uranium plant, a US think tank said Monday, highlighting the reclusive regime’s pursuit of weapon advances amid the stalled denuclearization talks with Washington. 

Beyond Parallel, a website specializing in North Korean matters run by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Pyongsan Uranium Concentrate Plant, located some 45 kilometers north of the inter-Korean border, remains operational and is producing a uranium concentrate, also known as yellowcake.

Yellowcake is used to produce highly enriched uranium, a key component in building nuclear weapons.

“The main plant of the Pyongsan Uranium Concentrate Plant continues to show activity consistent with the continued production of uranium concentrate and ongoing maintenance efforts,” the report said, citing commercial satellite photos collected between April and October. “Given the observed activity and continuing North Korean statements concerning the importance of continued development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, the plant will undoubtedly remain operational for the foreseeable future barring any unforeseen developments.”

The report noted that the Pyongsan mill remains the “sole verified producer” of uranium concentrate in North Korea, and represents the “foundation upon which the nation’s production of fissile material for nuclear weapons is built.”

It stressed that the dismantlement of the Pyongsan plant should be an essential component to any “meaningful future complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement nuclear agreement” between the United States and North Korea.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that the North has the capacity to produce more uranium for nuclear weapons than previously realized at its Pyongsan plant, citing new research from Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Previous estimates of North Korea’s annual output of uranium ore, the source of yellowcake, was estimated to be around 30,000 metric tons, but the new study shows it could be as much as 360,000 metric tons.

The report said that the findings suggest the North could process enough yellowcake for up to 340 kilograms of highly enriched uranium a year -- sufficient to make more than 20 nuclear bombs annually.

The North continues to pursue weapon advances amid the long-stalled denuclearization talks with the US since the collapse of the Hanoi summit in 2019. The signs of resumed activities at the Pyongsan mill and the North’s main Yongbyon nuclear complex come as Seoul and Washington have been stepping up diplomacy to nudge Pyongyang back to talks.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, however, has shown no interest in resuming talks with South Korea and the US, but has vowed to keep developing nuclear weapons and missiles in the face of what it labels as growing hostilities.

North Korea has been upping the ante with back-to-back weapons tests this year, including a new submarine-launched ballistic missile last month that marked the regime’s eighth weapons test this year.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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